History Interviews October 10, 2011: David McCullough 4 lessons “We are what we read”


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“We are what we read”: 4 lessons from David McCullough

Source: CS Monitor, 10-10-11


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David McCullough, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author – most recently – of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” imparted words of wisdom to a sold-out crowd at Boston’s Symphony Hall last week. Here are four pieces of advice from McCullough.

1.”Understand the past.”

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The language of Shakespeare and Cervantes helped to shape the way that we speak today, 400 years later.

“Nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. America is a joint effort,” insisted the author of “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris,” “1776,”John Adams,” and seven other books. “There’s no such thing as a self-made man or self-made woman.”

Parents, teachers, friends, enemies, and even people we never knew affect our everyday lives, successes, and failures. The writers of the books we read particularly influence us. McCullough pointed out how truisms promulgated by Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes some 400 years ago inhabit our everyday language today.

“We are what we read,” McCullough said. “We get our ideas from what we read. So it’s extremely important when we try to understand the past, and the characters of the past, to not only read what they wrote, but to read what they read.”

2.“Keep a diary.”

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McCullough has used the personal hand-written artifacts of abolitionist and former US Senator Charles Sumner, among many others, as part of his research.

“Nobody writes letters anymore, and very few people keep diaries,” lamented McCullough, though then he joked, “And people in the public life wouldn’t dare keep dairies. They’d be subpoenaed.”

The historian used the personal hand-written artifacts of Charles Sumner, Margaret Fuller, Theodore Roosevelt, and countless others to research his books. Perhaps he’s just old-fashioned – McCullough still uses a manual typewriter to pen his books – but a lot of his work really doesn’t involve technology such as the Internet, he said. Many of the original letters and journals by our nation’s early founders and thinkers aren’t available from a home computer, rather, they’ve been scanned on microfilm and housed in libraries.

“If any of you are interested in immortality, start keeping a diary,” McCullough quipped. Then, when you feel your days are numbered, donate it to your favorite library. “It will be quoted for hundreds of years by future historians, because it will be the only diary [of our era].”

3.Remember: “Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the present.”

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McCullough says that Abigail Adams’ letters help to remind us that “there were no simpler times.”

The master historian reminds us that there is no limit to what we can learn from studying our past, but, he said, it’s important to remember a few principles when studying the subject:

“Nothing ever happened in the past. It happened in the present. Somebody else’s present.” McCullough used an example to illustrate his point: “I’m always annoyed when I hear people talking about the past and they say, ‘Well, that was a simpler time.’ Nonsense, there were no simpler times.”

In fact, our ancestors most likely had is much worse than us. “Abigail Adams wrote that future generations will scarcely be able to imagine the suffering and hardships of their forbearers,” quoted McCullough.

4.Read these books.

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McCullough mentioned Michael Shaara’s outstanding Civil War novel “The Killer Angels” as a book everyone should read.

When an audience member asked McCullough to list “three books everyone should read,” the author hesitated. “It’s an impossible question.”

After a moment of deliberation, he declared Michael Shaara’s Gettysburg story “The Killer Angels,” “a good biography of George Washington” (perhaps Ron Chernow’s “Washington: A Life” or “His Excellency: George Washington” by Joseph Ellis would fit the bill), and “Tender Is The Night” by F. Scott Fitzgerald as his impromptu top three.

The books reflect “important people and times to know about,” said the author. Of course, he added, everyone should read his books too.

History Q & A: Columbus Day Myths


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Columbus Day: 5 Things You Didn’t Know

As today’s Columbus Day celebrations begin, marking Columbus’ 1492 arrival in the New World, here are some little-known facts about the explorer celebrated by Italian-Americans across the United States.

1.   When the  Columbus Day Holiday Began

In the U.S., it’s sometimes reported that the national holiday began in 1971, but that’s actually the date when Congress changed Columbus Day to the second Monday of October. In reality, Columbus Day became a national holiday much earlier, in 1937.  At that time, President Franklin Roosevelt declared the holiday would take place on Oct. 12 (the date Columbus first landed in the Bahamas).  But the first known Columbus Day celebration in the U.S. took place in New York City in 1792, long before it became a national holiday.

2.   Columbus’ Journal Was Intended for an Audience

When historians examine primary sources from Columbus’ voyages, they aren’t reading private diaries. They’re evaluating correspondence intended for the explorer’s sponsors, those he refers to as the “Most Christian, High, Excellent, and Powerful Princes, King and Queen of Spain.”  In that sense, it’s entirely possible that these journals were embellished, with some facts manipulated in Columbus’ favor.

3.   Columbus’ Bones Are Still Shrouded in Mystery

It’s still unclear where Columbus’ bones were finally laid to rest.

When Columbus died in 1506 his remains were taken to a family mausoleum in Seville, Spain. But nearly 40 years later his son requested that the remains be placed in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo in the capital of the Dominican Republic, where he intended to be buried. In the late 1700s the bones moved to Cuba, and 100 year later they returned to Seville. But in 1877 bones marked as those of Columbus were found by cathedral workers in the Dominican Republic.  Those bones have since been interred in the Columbus Lighthouse in Santo Domingo.

In  2006, the year of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ death, a forensic team found DNA from bones buried in a cathedral in Seville matched the DNA from Columbus’ brother, Diego. But at the time, the director of the Columbus Lighthouse insisted Columbus’ remains had never left the Dominican Republic.

4.  Pope Rejected Bid for Columbus’ Sainthood

In 1882 the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic men’s fraternity, supported Italian Americans who rallied for Columbus to be recognized as a saint because they said he had brought Christianity to the Indians. Pope Leo XIII, however, rejected that request because Columbus had an illegitimate son with Beatriz Enríquez de Harana, his mistress.

5.   Columbus Brought Citrus to the New World

The history books note Columbus forcibly scored a lot of loot from the islands he visited, making off with gold, parrots, spices, and human captives from Haiti, an island he later named Hispaniola.  The “riches” pleased his Spanish sponsors, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, who were funding the voyage.  During the process, Columbus also carried European items to the New World.  In 1493, the year of Columbus’s second voyage, he brought citrus fruit seeds to the West Indies and the trees ended up in the West Indies, Mexico, and Florida.

Think You Know The Real Christopher Columbus?

Columbus Day is a national holiday, celebrated with parades and songs. While most Americans know that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, many of the facts surrounding the voyage remain misunderstood. Guest host Tony Cox speaks with historian William Fowler to set the record straight on some of the popular myths surrounding Christopher Columbus and his voyage.

TONY COX, host: I’m Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, we go to the West African country of Liberia as the country prepares to head to the polls. Many are watching to see whether the current president and modern Africa’s first female head of state will stay in power. That’s in just a few moments.

But first, today is Columbus Day, a day that schoolchildren across America celebrate the arrival of the man who was credited with discovering our country. But since 1492, we’ve learned a lot about what really happened. And today, we wanted to do a little myth busting about Christopher Columbus…..

COX: Now, Professor Fowler, not everyone gets a day named after them. Martin Luther King comes to mind, George Washington, Abe Lincoln had days named after them at one point, which have since been combined into what we now know as President’s Day.

But there are controversies about some of these holidays, particularly around Martin Luther King and now to a certain extent we’re talking about it today. In fact, Christopher Columbus, we have celebrated Columbus Day forever, you know. One hundred years, for sure, and then there was a break and then another 100 years before that with only some modern opposition to the holiday. Why do we, as Americans, hold the story of Columbus in such high regard still?

FOWLER: Well, in looking at history, Tony, people love certainty and they love heroes. And so, here we have the combination. We have a certain date, October 12, 1492 and we have a heroic figure, Columbus. So, you combine those two and it sort of just energizes people. It’s a very romantic concept. And then, of course, it is true that Columbus changed the world. That what Columbus did was to make a greater change in the world than any man had done since the days of Julius Caesar. That is what opened the door. So, Columbus did in fact play that extraordinary key moment, key time, a great heroic mission.

COX: One of the other things that he is given credit for, which I’m assuming is correct and you being the history professor can set the record straight for us, is that he did open new trade routes from Europe heading toward Asia, although he never actually got there, I think. And that he also was responsible for the trading of or the introduction of certain food stuffs and certain spices from one continent to another.

FOWLER: Yes, that’s absolutely true. This is sort of what historians sometimes refer to as the Columbian Exchange, and that is that products clearly travel from Europe and from Africa to the New World, and New World products traveled back to Africa and to Europe, as well.

So this is the beginning of this great exchange, much of it beneficial, some of not so beneficial, particularly when we talk about diseases. Of course, the European diseases that arrived in the New World just wreaked tremendous damage to the native peoples. So, much went back and forth now across the Atlantic.

COX: Professor Fowler, one of the things that has happened in modern time, as we mentioned in the introduction to this story, is that people are starting to push back on this myth of Christopher Columbus. When did the controversy begin and when did people begin to, you know, question, really, whether or not Columbus did what the history books told us he did?

FOWLER: Well, Tony, for hundreds of years following Columbus’ voyages, the story of Columbus is one of celebration, of discovery and of conquest. And I think in recent times, certainly in the 20th century and certainly today in the 21st century, thankfully, we’ve become much more sensitive about indigenous cultures and the harm, the wreckage that the European arrival here in the New World visited upon those people.

And so, I think, as we reflect on that and the cost to native peoples here in this world, the damage that was done, I think that sort of mellows the way we might be thinking about Columbus, not suggesting we blame him individually. I don’t think that’s correct. He was a man of his times. But there was great evil that was done when the Europeans came. Today, perhaps, we think of discovery. We might also think of the word, invasion, and the result of that. Much good has happened, clearly, but much evil happened, as well.

COX: Well, you know, it’s been a long time, Bill Fowler, since you or I was in elementary school reading about Christopher Columbus in our textbooks. What do they say today? Do you know?

FOWLER: I think that the textbooks, at least the ones that I have used and you see, are ones that are much more sensitive and do indeed talk about the harm done to indigenous peoples, and try to put the Columbian experience into a notion of cultural encounter, what happens when two alien cultures encounter one another. That’s something from which we can learn a great deal. What does, in fact, happen when alien – different cultures encounter one another, that’s a lesson for our own times.

COX: I suppose, to end, we should say that, eventually, maybe the poem – in 1492, Columbus sailed the blue – is going to have to be revised a little bit.

FOWLER: Oh, I have no hope that it will make wide public acceptance….

COX: William Fowler is distinguished professor of history at Northeastern University. He joined us from member station WBUR in Boston. Professor Fowler, thank you very much for the information and the lesson.

FOWLER: Thank you, Tony, and happy Columbus Day.

History Interviews David McCullough: Author & historian has Americans reading U.S. history


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JACQUELYN MARTIN / Associated Press

Author David McCullough, in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., said one finds the purest forms of history in art.

Source: Sacremento Bee, 10-10-11

Few authors have done more to popularize American history than David McCullough. Not only has the historian-lecturer made it more accessible than ever, he has made it sing.

Take his bestselling 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning “John Adams,” for instance. The biography of the prickly founding father had a first printing of 350,000, a staggering number for a history book and a tribute to McCullough’s stature. In 2008, the HBO miniseries “John Adams” took home a load of awards, including three Golden Globes.

“The pre-eminent master of narrative history,” as he is known, has cast an unusual eye on the American landscape for his subjects: the youth of Theodore Roosevelt (“Mornings on Horseback”), the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge (“The Great Bridge”), the marvel of the Panama Canal (“The Path Between the Seas”), the dam failure that destroyed a town (“The Johnstown Flood”). More mainstream were “Truman,” “1776” and “John Adams.”

Along the way, McCullough has collected two National Book Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and two Francis Parkman Prizes from the American Society of Historians.

Now comes “The Greater Journey” (Simon & Schuster, $37.50, 576 pages), chronicling how life in Paris helped shape the achievements of hundreds of Americans who lived there between 1830 and 1900.

“His books are wonderful contributions to the public discourse, and they bring a lot of people into thinking about areas of history they might not otherwise have,” said Eric Rauchway. He is both a history professor at the University of California, Davis, and the author of five books, including “The Great Depression and the New Deal” (Oxford University Press, $11.95, 160 pages).

“McCullough benefits tremendously from academic history, and in turn he gives a lot back by putting forth bold theses that academics sometimes must reckon with. Such as whether building the Panama Canal was a good idea,” Rauchway said. “Beyond that, he serves a valuable role in terms of talking to the public sphere about the uses of history.”

I caught up with McCullough, 78, by phone at his Boston home. He and his wife, Rosalee, have five children and 18 grandchildren.

Where did the idea for “The Greater Journey” originate?

When Gene Kelly starred in “An American in Paris,” that really got to me. I imagined myself as a painter in Paris (McCullough is a part-time artist.), with all the beautiful girls interested in me.

Many years later in Paris, I wanted to show that history is much more than just politics and the military. The idea that I could concentrate on painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, medicine and the world of ideas was more of a draw than just the setting.

Why was Paris a magnet to Americans of that era?

It was the cultural capital of the world, with a high standard of education you could not get here. If you wanted to be better than you were, Paris was the place to go.

Who are two of the Americans you write about?

Samuel F.B. Morse went to Paris to perfect himself as a painter but got the idea for the telegraph. Another was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., a poet and essayist. He decided to become a physician and was so affected by (his teachers in Paris) that he came back and taught at the Harvard Medical School.

Are we Americans losing touch with our own history?

Yes, we are, because we’re doing a grossly inadequate job of teaching history to our children and grandchildren. I’ve lectured at more than 100 universities and have seen (an ignorance of history) everywhere. What (students) don’t know is sometimes almost humorous. It’s not their fault, it’s ours. We need to do a better job of teaching the teachers.

Your best advice to students?

Read everything, and try to read a little above what you think is your level. Read the classics, they’re damn good.

Do you watch the History Channel?

I don’t have time for TV, though once in awhile I’ll watch “The American Experience” on PBS (which he hosted for 12 years). My spirit plummets when I read that the average daily time spent watching TV in American households is seven hours.

Don’t history-related TV shows give the subject some exposure?

Sure, they’re better than the drivel that’s on. But the way to get people involved in history is to get them reading original letters, diaries and autobiographies. There’s a wonderful literature of history, too, (including) “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara, about the Battle of Gettysburg. And the World War II novels by Herman Wouk are superb (“The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance”).

It’s said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

I’m not sure that’s true. Harry Truman said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. I think that’s a better quote.

It’s also said that history is written by the victors.

That’s a vast oversimplification, but, yes, history does change in perspective as time goes on. All history is revisionist history because we know what followed. Otherwise, why write it?

Where do we find the purest forms of history?

Architecture is a very pure one, and so are painting and music. For some civilizations, all we have of their histories is their art.

History is the human experience. It’s about people, not just facts and figures. One of the most effective history teachers I had in college would not hold us (students) accountable for any (historic) dates. He said, “That’s what books are for, you can look them up.” It was as if he had told me I could put on a pair of wings and fly. It released me to really start to enjoy history.

As a writer, which is more satisfying – the research or the writing?

The writing is what I take more to heart because it’s the part that’s all up to me. The research is like being on a detective case.

When I write, it’s as if I go into this other time and place, as if I’m under a spell. In many ways, the (research subjects) become more real to me than the people I know in life, because I know so much more about them. In real life, you don’t get to read other people’s mail.

If you could time-travel back to historical era?

I would love to come back here to Boston in the years just before the Civil War, the late 1850s. I would like to see the abolitionist movement in full gear, and some of the intellectual life that was going on. I would love to meet people like (poet Henry Wadsworth) Longfellow and (poet-essayist Ralph Waldo) Emerson. And hang out in a good bar and soak up some of the stories the Irish were bringing in.

What will history have to say about you?

I hope it will say, “He tried his hardest.”

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